By TOM WOODCOCK
The environmental aspect of a construction project can often be inconsistent in approach. Whether asbestos, mold or lead, it’s surprising how common it isn’t properly handled or even ignored.
The risk of an environmental issue not being corrected is by far greater than the expense of litigation, industry experts contend. Part of the problem is many owners are not aware of the need; many times, owners are not informed of an existing problem. The discovery of dangerous materials should spur a removal process, environmental remediation experts say, but this isn’t always the case. Why does this occur, and what can be done to correct it? Too many times, renovation and demolition projects may remain unchecked and construction will go forward without the problem being resolved, experts agree.
There are reasons this is occurring regularly on construction projects, according to Mike Renfroe, founder of St. Louis-based GenCorp Services, LLC, a remediation and demolition contractor.
“There are several factors to this work not being done,” Renfroe said. “These may include tradesman who are not educated on environmental requirements and miscalculating the expense of removal.”
These two factors, Renfroe said, seem to be the most common reasons environmental problems go unresolved. At times, not a single individual on the project takes any regard to the presence of mold asbestos or lead, he added.
According to Renfroe, willful negligence can result in steep fines and even jail time in some cases. Fines can exceed $10,000 per day for more egregious violations, according to Renfroe. With more than 1,000 contractors in the vicinity and a minimal number of inspectors, some contractors may opt to roll the dice and skip the environmental phase of a project. In such cases owners are completely unaware of problem at hand, yet they absorb much of the blame. This scenario is far more common than many realize, according to Renfroe.
Simple testing of a site prior to renovation or demolition can solve this problem, said Ryan Spell, vice president of Precision Analysis, Inc., an environmental testing service.
“We are often brought in after the fact and have to test a site that has an apparent issue,” said Spell. “Testing midstream is more difficult, and workers may have already been exposed to harmful matter. It’s always wiser to test before a project begins,” he added.
Though testing seems reasonable, it’s not done consistently, according to Renfroe. Both St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis employ a small number of inspectors. These inspectors are often forced to focus on larger, higher-profile projects, Renfroe said. Smaller commercial projects – such as small office facilities – and residential projects are commonly missed. “People are living and working with dangerous environmental problems in the same spaces,” Renfroe said. “Laws have been established to prevent usage of some products and determine the levels of each material that are acceptable. The big question is whose responsibility it is to make sure the environmental issue is handled properly,” he added.
That question has an interesting answer.
Owners often count on the general contractor to handle all aspects of a project. The thought process here, according to BEX Construction Services President Randy Bueckendorf, is that a contractor knows what to look for and will address it. Most general contractors see the environmental issue as the responsibility of the owner or demolition contractor, Bueckendorf said.
“The environmental and demolition contractors are the experts,” said Bueckendorf. “After checking building records, we immediately refer any potential environmental issue to an environmental contractor. If a problem is discovered, we will stop work on the spot. The GC is not in a liability position, in most cases, to deal with it internally.”
It is difficult in some instances to determine unforeseen environmental issues, according to Bueckendorf, which is all the more reason to test and consult an environmental expert. Leaving the project to chance is not a solution, he said. Communication is paramount in eliminating the concern of environmental problems. Whether existing mastic (adhesive) or the airborne asbestos is involved during demolition, determining the need for removal is central to ensuring a safe project.
The cost of removal is exponentially less costly than mid-project remediation work, Renfroe said. If the hazard isn’t detected until construction work is already in progress, completed work may need to be torn out, cleaned and then rebuilt. All that can be extremely costly.
In addition to testing, Renfroe recommends using a demolition contractor that is fluent in environmental regulations and safety codes. “Owners cannot assume that the environmental aspect of their project is being addressed on the front end,” he said. “Asking the general contractor whose responsibility the environmental will be can help determine where the liability rests. The risk is significant, but it isn’t realized till a citation is given. Then the battle over responsibility begins. Combine this with an active living or working space, and things can get dicey quickly,” said Renfroe.
Best practices suggest testing and monitoring any renovation or demolition project, experts concur. “Taking the extra step and assuring environmental issues are being dealt with is the best course of action,” Bueckendorf said. “Averting extra project cost is enticing, but the risk seems to be significant. The seemingly small percentage of projects that are tested and even cleaned is disconcerting. The majority of quality general contractors, environmental and demolition contractors are sensitive to problems that may exist. They are looking for potential problems and are keeping the best interest of the owners in mind. The problem arises when the desire to save cost overrides the safety concerns. Covering up environmental issues is a risky proposition. Banking on inspectors not having the time in their schedule to review a project can be problematic,” he added.
The environmental aspects of demolition and renovation projects require attention. In a health-conscious construction community, not addressing these issues is counter to current construction positions. “Environmental professionals across the board agree that there needs to be greater adherence,” Spell said. “Many in the general contracting community concur, too. Increasing the level of analysis can help alleviate much of the concern as well as the potential for very costly results.”